Feedback is not only a right, it’s a duty

The sense and nonsense of evaluation systems

By Professor Herman Van den Broeck (Vlerick Business School and Ghent University)

In 2015, in a context where innovation and change are central themes, employees and organisations have to learn at an accelerated pace to achieve their mission. And learning is only possible when useful feedback is available, on the basis of which people are willing, able and brave enough to learn. Attaining this goal requires a sound evaluation system.

Informal feedback is essential

Feedback is a right, which can be claimed by anyone who works hard and is keen to improve. Feedback is also a duty for anyone who wants employees to attain their full potential and for anyone who wants to enable them to grow in line with the many new demands imposed on them by the environment. This feedback begins with informal feedback, which is widely available. Daily interaction between employees, but also contact with customers, produces a considerable amount of informal feedback. Motivated employees examine the impact of their behaviour on others and try to learn from it. They engage in constructive, substantive conflicts because they know that differences of opinion lead to new insights. Apart from a formal evaluation system, it is, therefore, essential for a company to establish an open culture that promotes feedback and where genuine use is subsequently made of this feedback for the simple reason that people are truly committed to their job.

The purpose of evaluation systems is to formally record feedback for the purposes of improvement, as a kind of semi-annual or annual recapitulation. Such a system sets out a number of agreements in writing to guide further learning. And this is what is important. Of course, evaluation systems also discuss employees’ strengths and examine where they can be best used. What are the options, where are the opportunities they themselves have identified? What strengths are we, the organisation, going to support further? What is the link between these strengths and the organisational needs?

The context: learning path or condemnation path?

There is no doubt that when an evaluation system is created, different parties provide their input, which may result in an acceptable (but, at times, considerably weakened or highly complex) system. But does it still serve its essential purpose: accelerated learning? Or does a lethal confusion arise between learning and condemning? If evaluation and feedback are inextricably linked to a potential dismissal and/or promotion, feedback which enables further learning is out of the question. Evaluation and feedback should never be linked to sanctioning.

It’s also important to ensure that annual evaluation systems will never grow into administrative monsters. Obviously, an extensive evaluation system requires regular and, above all, flexible adjustment, preferably based on practical experience. But what is left of the speed of learning when such adjustments have to be preceded by a merry-go-round of meetings and formal approvals from various parties?

Let’s not delude ourselves: the actual evaluation, the actual feedback, is often given at individual level and apart from the formal system, in a simple and effective way. Very often, managers (in profit and non-profit) agree to give the personnel department what it asks for: i.e. completed forms. This is most often the case in organisations that apply an excessive amount of procedures, but this also happens when the consequences (administrative rigmarole) of a negative assessment result in the assessor having to give account out of all proportions.

We have to learn to be courageous enough to give those employees who underperform the guidance they need, both formally and informally. They deserve this, as do the customers who count on professional service, and the colleagues of the employees concerned. Don’t they have to pick up the slack for the lack of professionalism shown by one of their own? This, too, is part of being socially responsible!

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